Will Sundays elections put Iraq firmly on the path to democracy? George W. Bush hopes so. The fate of his presidency may depend on it.
The stakes are equally substantial for Iraqis. They are choosing their new 275-member National Assembly. Under the deal worked out last March by the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council, the National Assembly will appoint an interim president and prime minister and draft a constitution.
If all goes well, Iraqis will vote on the constitution in October and then elect a new government in December.
But will things go well? All signs suggest that the process will get off to a rough start. One problem is logistical: Iraq has no experience holding free and fair nationwide elections. It is a demanding task even under the best of conditions.
And these are not the best of conditions. Al Qaeda has declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology. Hooded gunmen pass out leaflets vowing to wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters blood.
The insurgents are strongest in Sunni neighborhoods, and many Sunnis will stay home on Sunday. So when the votes are counted, Sunnis, who are already a minority in Iraq, will be underrepresented in the National Assembly. In a country used to winner-take-all politics, that result could push the Sunni-Shiite split into civil war.
The Bush administration hopes the election will have the opposite effect, convincing Sunni leaders that opposing the insurgents and cooperating with the National Assembly is their only chance to avoid total Shiite dominance. Shiite leaders will then see involving Sunnis in drafting the constitution as a small price to pay to avert civil war.
Whether this scenario unfolds is beyond the White Houses ability to control. It long ago lost the power of initiative in Iraq. Iraqis will judge their own interests.
It may also be beyond Bushs ability to contain domestic criticism of his Iraq policies. The American publics optimism about Iraq has slipped. Last April, polls showed that a majority thought a stable, democratic Iraq was likely. Now a majority thinks that outcome is unlikely. More troubling for Bush is that upward of 60 percent of Americans now disapprove of his handling of Iraq.
Those numbers will likely worsen as the insurgency continues and more Americans die. Congressional Democrats already sense they can score political points by criticizing Bushs Iraq policy. This week Senator Robert Byrd asked the question on the minds of many Americans: Oh, when will our boys come home?
Bushs answer so far is that they will stay until the United States builds a democratic Iraq. That position could be harder to maintain after Sunday. Then, two years into the war, the United States will have its national debate on Iraq. If similar debates over Korea and Vietnam are any guide, Bush will need to change course dramatically or find his political clout significantly diminished.